Rabindranath Tagore was a Painter Too – Ugh, Ughh

Did you know that Asia’s first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the author of the Indian National Anthem Jana gana mana… was a painter too.

And a pretty unimpressive one at that.

On Sunday, we had the chance to view some of Tagore’s paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tagore’s paintings are part of two exhibitions – The Art of Nandalal Bose (ends on Sep. 1) and Multiple Modernities: India 1905-2005 (ends on Dece. 7) – that are now running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Even to our untrained eyes, it’s clear that Tagore’s paintings are nothing extraordinary. Nothing like the luscious oil-paintings of Raja Ravi Varma.

Some of Tagore’s paintings like Landscape (ink on paper, November 9, 1930) are ugly as hell.

With three trees (two in the foreground, left and right forming a canopy and one in the center set back a little), the Landscape painting is one we’d be embarrassed to even hang on our home walls.

Other Tagore paintings like Head of a Woman (oil on rice paper, 1928-30), Phoenix (ink on paper) and Grotesque Head at the exhibitions also left us unimpressed.

Tagore started painting late in life.

Some say Tagore started at the age of 60, others aver that he began painting only at 70.

Whether 60 or 70, Tagore came late to the painting arena. Perhaps that explains his limited impact as a painter compared to those steeped in this art form for a far longer period.

In his lifetime, Tagore, it seems, had a more appreciative audience overseas for his paintings than in India. Apparently, at one exhibition in Mumbai the audience response was quite muted.

It’s safe to say that if Rabindranath Tagore were not such a well known writer, his paintings would not have attracted so much notice.

Nandalal Bose (1883-1966)

Nandalal Bose was a disciple of Abhanindranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. 

Inspired by the Japanese Nihonga tradition, Nandalal Bose eschewed the rich color and vibrancy of oil paintings for the sparse, wash paintings in which color is applied to paper that’s been soaked in water.

Among the Nandalal Bose paintings we found interesting were Head of Shiva (wash and tempera on paper), Sati (gold, wash and tempera on paper), Hour of cowdust (tempera on paper, 1943), the large Abhimanyu Fighting with Chariot Wheels (tempera on paper), Annapurna (wash and tempera on paper) and the paintings he did for the Haripura session of the Congress party (1938).

With a wide forehead, only the whites of the eye visible (but not the eyeballs) and the ubiquitous snake curled around his neck, Head of Shiva is an interesting work to behold.

Painted during the Bengal famine of 1943, Nandalal’s Annapurna with a skeletal Shiva, a skull in his hand as a begging bowl, dancing in front of Goddess Annapurna drew our attention as well as of many others at the exhibition.

But several of Nandalal’s works paintings including the four ink on postcard paintings of Benares as well as the Grasshopper and Fish left us befuddled as to what criteria was used to justify their presence in the exhibition.

Other eye-catching paintings currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art include The Festival (Jamini Roy, opaque water color on cloth), Dead Politician (Gieve Patel, ink on paper, 1972), When Rain Comes (Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, wash and tempera on paper, 1959), Laughter (Benodebehari Mukherjee) and Passage into Human Space: One (M.F.Hussain, water color and graphite on paper).

After spending a few hours gazing at the dozens of portraits, we can definitely say that we preferred the sole oil painting of Raja Ravi Varma (Scene from the Mahabharatha – Krishna with Dhritharashtra) at the exhibition much more than the wash paintings of artists like Nandalal Bose from the Bengal school of art.

One Response to "Rabindranath Tagore was a Painter Too – Ugh, Ughh"

  1. sobuj   April 30, 2009 at 7:25 am

    It’s a pity those having no aesthetic sense or artistic base have the audacity to comment on art…
    To the uninitiated even Picasso would seem grotesque…

    Though Tagore started to paint seriously when he was about 70, his paintings have all the depth and elegance which can only be appreciated by those who understand art.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    To the uninitiated, anything done by a famous man glitters. Sad.

    There’s neither depth nor brilliance in the Tagore paintings at the exhibition.

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